Toledote: A Midrash by David Hartley Mark


Scene: Night. The wilderness encampment shared by Be’eri and Elon, princes of the Hittite Tribe. Esav ben Yitzchak v’Rivkah has just paid the mohar, the bride-price for Judith bat Beeri and Basemat bat Elon. He lies in a tent, drinking spiced wine and getting acquainted with his two new pagan brides.


Call me Esav; some call me Edom, the Red-haired, the Mighty One, who breaks men in half like pieces of rotten wood. My story? You want to hear about me? I understand your curiosity, my being your new husband, but forgive my saying that no one has ever taken an interest in my life before—everyone who came to sit under my father Isaac’s roof always wanted to hear about my younger brother Jacob. ‘God’s favorite,’ they called him, and why? Because he was clever! Tricky is what I called him; not-to-be-trusted, the one you had to watch always, the one you were afraid to turn your back on.

It’s been that way all of my life, and I don’t know why. I am the elder brother; I am supposed to be the favorite! And yet, for as long as I can remember, even when we were little and just starting out to be shepherds, Jacob could do things I couldn’t do, like keep the sheep grazing in one place, stop them from wandering off. I just couldn’t do that—I was always distracted, by the wind, the sun, birds flying by, dust-motes wandering in the wind, just like that, just-like-that—(he sips some wine and stares off into the fire, suddenly distracted)….

What’s that? Eh? Oh, and so my parents took me off shepherd duty—they got tired of the sheep wandering off while I was skylarking—and ‘prenticed me to my Uncle Ishmael, the archer, the hunter. He taught me all he knew, about creeping through the woods—so quiet, so quiet!—and sneaking up on a deer, getting so, so close that that old buckhorn couldn’t smell you, though you were so dripping with sweat in your hot leather vest and breeches that you could smell yourself, half-a-mile off; ‘Crouch down in the high grass, boy,’ Uncle Ish would whisper, clapping his big horny hand atop my head for emphasis, to make his point, ‘Take your aim, and nail that big-horn buck, right there in the throat—there, that’s the way!’—and I would pull back my bowstring, so, so taut, and let the arrow fly—and, before you could say, ‘Halleluyah, Great God of Hosts!’ there would be roast venison for dinner. Papa loved it when I brought him fresh meat; sometimes, he would get so emotional, he would kiss my hands: ‘The hands of my son, the hunter!’ he would say.

You see, that I could do: I could hunt. And Uncle Ish—and Papa, they were so proud of me! Papa especially; I think because Grandpa Abe never let him hunt; he always had to be chasing after the sheep and goats, and Grandpa never let Papa have any fun—and then, there was that Evil Day, that day that Papa and Mama don’t talk about, that day that Grandpa took Papa, and almost (whispers) sacrificed him, to the God-Who-Is. Can you believe it? Well, now (takes a deep gulp of wine from the cup which Judith fills)—thank you, my love—

But Jacob! I could never figure him out. Pretended to be my friend—(mimics Jacob’s higher voice):‘C’mon now, Esav, Big Red (so he called me; he knew I was sensitive about my hair and my fair skin burning in the sun, and us supposed to be twins, though he was darker than I)—have some red bean stew—it’ll bring out the red in your hair! Ha! Just a joke’—but I was hungry, and the deer and pheasant just weren’t there for the hunting, that hot hot day—

‘Brother Jake,’ said I, nice as you could want, ‘Gi’me some of that there red bean stew, please.’

But he cocks an eye at me, and I think in my head, ‘Uh-oh—what’s this boy going to fool me with now?’

‘Tell you what, Big Red,’ he smiles at me, ‘I’ll sell you the stew, a big bowl of it, and a honking chunk of bread, too—for your birthright paper!’

To tell you the truth, I was relieved. What good was that old paper? I was hungry enough to die, and I knew that Papa loved me anyway, and would give me what I needed when the time came—and Papa was young, death was far off! So what good was that birthright to me at all?

‘Here it is,’ I said, and took the paper out of my hunter’s bag, and wrote an ‘X’ on it to sign it over to him, and got my big bowl, right away.

But now, my belly’s full of good roast meat, and I’ve had my fill of wine, and I have you two lovely ladies for my wives—and I may have to kill my brother (Drinks). Life’s a funny thing, O God-Who-Is!

David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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